Pubdate: Wed, 04 May 2016
Source: Times Argus (Barre, VT)
Copyright: 2016 Times Argus
Author: Neal Goswami


MONTPELIER (AP) - The Vermont House on Tuesday soundly rejected a 
Senate proposal to legalize marijuana and create a regulated retail 
market for the drug, and even fell short of decriminalizing the 
possession and cultivation of two marijuana plants.

The House did manage to salvage a commission that will study the 
legalization of marijuana and report its findings to the Legislature, 
likely setting up another push at legalization next year after the 
November election.

The House first voted 121-28 Tuesday against the Senate's proposal, 
which was strongly backed by Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin. The 
Senate passed the bill on a 17-12 vote.

Rep. Chris Pearson, a Progressive from Burlington, was among the slim 
minority of House members who supported the Senate's language. He 
repeatedly questioned why Vermonters are free to drink alcohol but 
not legally smoke or possess marijuana.

"Our constituents want to know, why do we sit and enjoy delicious 
Vermont beer and frown on cannabis use?" Pearson said. "These are not 
deadbeats. These are professionals, with advanced degrees who earn 
nice salaries."

Pearson's point was reinforced when lawmakers took an afternoon break 
for a reception honoring the retirement of a longtime legislative 
staff person where many of them sipped on champagne.

After dispatching with the Senate's proposal, the Democratic-led 
House then rejected an amendment billed by Democratic House leaders 
as a compromise to decriminalize the possession and cultivation of up 
to two marijuana plants on a 77-70 vote.

Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Newbury, proposed the amendment to 
decriminalize the possession and cultivation of two marijuana plants, 
create a commission to study the issue of legalization and boost 
education programs about the use of marijuana.

Conquest said the state decriminalized the possession of up to 1 
ounce of marijuana in 2013 but "never addressed how they might get 
that marijuana." Vermonters must "enter a criminal realm" and "get it 
from someone who is committing a crime," Conquest said.

Rep. Sam Young, D-Glover, urged the House to support the 
decriminalization proposal because the country's policy of 
prohibiting marijuana has only made "criminals out of good neighbors."

"What good has ever come from the criminalization of the drug?" Young 
asked his colleagues. "Should we double down? Should we spend another 
$1.3 trillion? This war has failed us. It has torn apart families and 
communities and I feel we should have some measure of compassion for 
those 60,000 to 80,000 Vermonters that use marijuana."

Conquest's proposal was split into several parts and the House 
approved the commission.

The votes Tuesday were a major setback for advocates and supporters 
of legalization, and for Shumlin, who had been calling for weeks on 
the House to take up the Senate proposal.

Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith had been warning since February 
that his chamber did not have the votes to pass legalization. And 
after the compromise language was developed in recent days, Smith 
warned again that it was not sure to pass.

"Last week, it was clear to me that despite my view that the policy 
is broken, it was not clear that we had a majority of legislators who 
felt that was true," Smith said. "I was calling it like I saw it. I 
told the administration, I told the Senate, that I thought it was a 
bad idea that we take a vote on this bill. They pushed very hard and 
they decided to put a vote on the floor."

Shumlin did push for a vote and the administration said it was 
working to secure the votes. The governor issued a statement Tuesday 
evening expressing his disappointment with the House.

"The War on Drugs policy of marijuana prohibition has failed," he 
said. "I want to thank those House members who recognize that and 
worked to move this issue forward. It is incredibly disappointing, 
however, that a majority of the House has shown a remarkable 
disregard for the sentiment of most Vermonters who understand that we 
must pursue a smarter policy when it comes to marijuana in this state."

Smith said he, too, was "disappointed that we can't move further but 
it is the reality of where people are right now." He said he would 
have killed the bill "in March, not May," if he was not interested in 
advancing the issue.

"The reality is that we were trying to move the issue forward in the 
House, and we were struggling every step of the way, and I think that 
was demonstrated by the real difficulty that the Judiciary Committee 
had in reaching any consensus on any bill," he said. "It wasn't for 
lack of trying. We pushed it as hard as we could."

The House first received the Senate proposal in late February, but 
the House never embraced it. While the Senate took up the issue last 
fall, holding hearings at the State House and several public hearings 
around the state, the House did not embrace the issue.

Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, chairwoman of the House Judiciary 
Committee, was not interested in taking on the issue and even 
resisted taking up the issue after the Senate passed S.241, according 
to several House members.

The House Judiciary Committee eventually voted to strike it all and 
replaced it with a commission to study the issue. The House Ways and 
Means Committee then further amended the bill to legalize the 
possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana and the possession and 
cultivation of up to two marijuana plants. But that proposal could 
not clear the House Appropriations Committee.

That's when Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate 
Judiciary Committee, attached its legalization bill to a House-passed 
bill dealing with criminal procedures.

House Republicans attempted to derail Conquest's amendment several 
times Tuesday, including proposing a nonbinding referendum on the 
August primary ballot that would replace it.

The House rejected that proposal, however, with many members saying 
such a referendum would "abdicate" their responsibility as lawmakers.

The commission approved by the House on Tuesday will not go back to 
the Senate for its approval. With lawmakers looking to adjourn the 
legislative biennium on Saturday, it is unlikely that any further 
changes can be made.

That would require suspending the rules to advance the legislative 
process and House leaders say they will not be able to secure enough 
votes for that.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom